This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2019, “Reshaping the Future of the Horn of Africa,” held on December 12, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
A majlis is an informal and multifaceted forum most common in the Gulf Arab states. At a majlis, conversations range from politics and culture to entertainment and sports. For youth in the Gulf, it represents an alternative civil society platform to discuss issues and introduce different narratives away from regulated spaces.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, an Emirati columnist; researcher on social, political, and cultural affairs in the Gulf Arab states; and founder of Barjeel Art Foundation, launched the Cultural Majlis in 2019. Sultan aimed to bring together the Middle East and North Africa community within U.S. campuses (so far, New York, Boston, and Washington, DC) and establish an inclusive dialogue connecting people, ideas, and cultures. His majlis is more intellectual and knowledge based, with an informal setting that gives it a special character of hospitality and ease. This casual welcome has allowed people from different backgrounds to experience the khaleeji majlis.
The Cultural Majlis has played an important role in cultural diplomacy, introducing Arab and Gulf cultures and traditions to the West without the heavy hand of politics. Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of state for foreign affairs, has described Sultan’s majlis as “an exceptional personal and serious effort to introduce Arab culture and arts through dozens of cultural majlises.” Sultan has hosted popular Arab figures, including artists, musicians, and rappers, alongside a varied set of intellectuals. Sultan’s majlis is part of his broader project, “looking to establish the narrative of 20th century Arab art before Western institutions do it on the region’s behalf.”
AGSIW spoke with Sultan about the goals and impact of the Cultural Majlis.
AGSIW: What inspired you to start the Cultural Majlis?
Sultan: Culture is an introduction to the Arab world. It is how we can best tell our story, while art is a significant and overlooked component of that culture. Art may be one of the easiest means to deliver a simple message that does not require the receiver to be familiar with the language or the discipline. Through an artistic painting, a person may take a few seconds to understand the history, culture, or politics of a specific country or population. However, we are not saying that this should replace other disciplines, but I do think it is complementary and therefore the Cultural Majlis may be a means of communicating this message.
The idea of the Cultural Majlis was inspired by the late Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem, the former emir of Kuwait, who formulated free spaces and allowed the idea of a free parliament in Kuwait 60 years ago. Hence, his image, which embodies the idea and spirit of these free majlises, hangs on the wall of our majlis.
Before the establishment of the Cultural Majlis, I had a weekly gathering of intellectuals at my house in Dubai that was limited to invitees only. After being asked in an interview whether I would move my majlis to the United States, I seriously considered it. I started by establishing the New York Cultural Majlis and then a group of students and intellectuals started the Boston Cultural Majlis, which was inspired by the New York majlis. Finally, we launched our Cultural Majlis in Washington, DC last fall and will soon launch one in Toronto, Canada.
AGSIW: How has the Cultural Majlis impacted both Arab and non-Arab youth?
Sultan: It is difficult to assess the impact of any initiative in a short amount of time. As of the direct impact of the majlis, I would say that within weeks, more than 390 people asked us to add them to our mailing list, which shows the effect of the majlis in attracting people who were keen on learning more about Arab and Middle Eastern art. Moreover, we have a waiting list for many of our majlises due to the high turnout. We close registration upon reaching 90 guests, although on some occasions we have allowed 120.
Also, since we allow our guests to talk and get acquainted before and after the majlis, our majlis has played a significant role in forming a microcommunity of people who love Arab and Middle Eastern art. In addition, smaller groups have formed within this community of those who share common interests and found an opportunity from the majlis to get to know those who share their passions. These relationships existed somewhere but did not find a place to express themselves.
AGSIW: What challenges have you faced while hosting the majlis?
Sultan: We have faced some challenges, but the most prominent was the fear of low turnout, which might be embarrassing with some of the speakers. Also challenging was the attempt to maintain a gender balance in the list of speakers to create diversity. Due to the high turnout for most events, hospitality is difficult when accommodating 60-70 guests in our house. Finally, it was a challenge to determine the appropriate number of majlises to hold, as we try not to hold our assembly daily – so that people do not get bored of the large number of speakers – or monthly – so that people do not wait for a full month.
AGSIW: You have hosted dozens of events without having a single sponsor. Why do you prefer self-financing?
Sultan: Sponsors mean strings attached in terms of speaker lists, guests, and topics that we choose, and we try as much as possible to avoid being seen as part of something bigger. We aim to have our majlis open to everyone to speak freely for the benefit of all. And finally, if there are potential donors, I would prefer their funding to go to other projects in desperate need of this material support, which we are not.
AGSIW: How did you adapt the idea of a khaleeji majlis for a Western audience?
Sultan: I have been keen on adhering to some basic traditions of the khaleeji majlis, such as welcoming everyone from different sects, countries, and classes. Another main tradition is providing dates, good hospitality, and exchanging respect. As for the changes, gender inclusivity in the majlis may be a top priority to accommodate the Western audience, as majlises in the Gulf are often limited to men only. Additionally, we use English as the primary language of the majlis. Despite the mixing of Western with Eastern culture, the majlis still maintains an Eastern spirit.
AGSIW: What makes the Cultural Majlis so unique and different from museums or other art venues?
Sultan: The majlis differs from museums and other venues in many ways. First, it is difficult to meet and talk to people in a museum, since it is not a place for discussions and exchanging opinions. Second, our assembly takes place at a specific time and people come knowing they will meet others who have the same interests, whether on the region in general or on the topic of the talk. Finally, most of our guests convene almost on a weekly basis, which creates a more loving and friendly environment that makes our guests comfortable with each other.
AGSIW: How could the Cultural Majlis help combat misconceptions in the West about Arabs?
Sultan: One example of a misconception or stereotype our Cultural Majlis has disproved is that Arab, Gulf, and Muslim individuals are not interested in art and culture and are a group of “spoiled brats.” In fact, hundreds of people who may have had completely different perceptions about our culture have registered voluntarily for our events and were interested in knowing more about Arab art and culture. Thus, they were keen to learn more, especially since our Cultural Majlis welcomes everyone and is held by individuals who have no business or political interests but are driven by their eagerness and passion to present their rich culture to others.
AGSIW: What is the Cultural Majlis’ long-term goal?
Sultan: Every institution has an ending, and nothing lasts forever, and so it is with our Cultural Majlis. The idea of the Cultural Majlis may evolve and other majlises could emerge to replace it. We do not mind that.
I do think our main goals have been accomplished for the first majlis. These goals were to determine: whether there was interest in Middle Eastern and Gulf art; if there were incentives to establish a cultural majlis; and if there were spaces for people from different backgrounds and cultures to exchange ideas freely. The answer was yes and the evidence for that is the popularity of the majlis and the very high turnout we have had for most of our talks. For example, we reached 120 attendees when we hosted Palestinian artist Samia Halabi at the New York majlis and the Tunisian artist and calligrapher eL Seed at the Washington, DC majlis. This, in my opinion, is the achievement itself.
Sultan Haitham will need to balance powerful interests while engaging all parties, especially as he tackles economic policy.
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